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Surprising Facts About Neanderthals You Probably Never Knew
Surprising Facts About Neanderthals You Probably Never Knew
by Andrea D. SteffenMay 12, 2019
Most people have no idea that the image of Neanderthals as stooped, brutish, hairy and dumb, ape-like people is all based on the result of French paleontologist Macellin Boule who came up with that perception using bones from an old male Neanderthal with severe arthritis. However, this long-held belief that Neanderthals are hunched-over brutes is wrong. It turns out that Neanderthals were smart, strong, capable cousins who were far more like humans than you might suspect.
In 2018 an international team of scientists analyzed the skeleton of a Neanderthal man using CT scans and discovered the spine was straighter than that of modern-day humans. Also, the skeleton had a wider, lower thorax and a horizontal-shaped rib cage — suggesting Neanderthals had a greater lung capacity and breathed primarily using their diaphragm. Their research is published in the journal Nature.
Then, in 2019, another team, this time from the University of Zurich’s Evolutionary Morphology Group, discovered that Neanderthals had a curved lower back and neck similar to humans. These researchers used a computer model to reconstruct a Neanderthal’s posture. They also uncovered that Neanderthals had a sacrum, a bone between the hip bones, just like humans too. Their research is published in the journal PNAS.
In addition to those, several other facts have come to light in recent decades, changing the false preconceived version of Neanderthals, and showing that they were actually the equals of modern humans in many ways. Here are a few of the discoveries:
High-Pitched, Loud Voices
Thanks to the presence and position of the hyoid bone, a bone structure located in the neck that supports the root of the tongue, Neanderthals were actually capable of complex speech. This is the same bone that allows modern humans to vocalize as we do. Therefore, they did not just grunt, although they probably didn’t have particularly sophisticated vocabularies either.
They may have the same bone as humans but they sounded different because their build changed the sound of their voice. It gave them a higher-pitched and quite loud voice.
A team of researchers modeled how the bone worked within the throat of Neanderthals. The following is a BBC reporting on the subject:
Stephen Wroe, from the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, said:
“We would argue that this is a very significant step forward. It shows that the Kebara 2 hyoid doesn’t just look like those of modern humans — it was used in a very similar way.” He told BBC News that it not only changed our understanding of Neanderthals, but also of ourselves. “Many would argue that our capacity for speech and language is among the most fundamental of characteristics that make us human. If Neanderthals also had language then they were truly human, too.”
Their large chests and posture likely made Neanderthals sound like this:
One of the skills that sets humans apart from all other species living today is the controlled use of fire; but we weren’t always the only ones. According to a 2011 study out of University of Colorado, Boulder, Neanderthals were skilled at controlling fire too. The study reveals that Neanderthals had sustained use of fire starting as far back as 400,000 years ago. They know this from looking at 141 fireplace sites in Europe according to Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. They found evidence of sustained use of fire at each site, including burned bones, heated stone artifacts and charcoal.
They used the fire to cook food as well as make needed materials. According to CU Boulder Today:
According to Villa, one of the most spectacular uses of fire by Neanderthals was in the production of a sticky liquid called pitch from the bark of birch trees that was used by Neanderthals to haft, or fit wooden shafts on, stone tools. Since the only way to create pitch from the trees is to burn bark peels in the absence of air, archaeologists surmise Neanderthals dug holes in the ground, inserted birch bark peels, lit them and covered the hole tightly with stones to block incoming air.
“This means Neanderthals were not only able to use naturally occurring adhesive gums as part of their daily lives, they were actually able to manufacture their own,” Villa said. “For those who say Neanderthals did not have elevated mental capacities, I think this is good evidence to the contrary.”
Superior Hunting Skills
Neanderthals knew how to calculate hunting strategies and follow a schedule to be in the right place at the right time. For example, they were aware of reindeer migration patterns, timing their stays in certain hunting locations based on the movement of their prey, according to 2011 research.
Neanderthals had a deep knowledge of the skills needed to capture different types of game as well as strong communication skills to coordinate attacks. According to Dutch researcher Gerrit Dusseldorp, even the most difficult-to-catch game were all on the Neanderthal menu. Such animals include herding animals that are tough to surprise, and other large, powerful animals.
The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, commenting about Dusseldorp’s research, added:
“That the Neanderthals were capable of hunting down such elusive game demonstrates that they had good coordination skills and could communicate well with each other… Dusseldorp demonstrated that Neanderthals, thanks to their intelligence, even surpassed hyenas at capturing the strongest game.”
The Smithsonian Institution explained:
“Neanderthal bones have a high frequency of fractures, which (along with their distribution) are similar to injuries among professional rodeo riders who regularly interact with large, dangerous animals.”
They were obviously very strong! Although, they still had a precise grip nonetheless. Contrary to previous belief, they did not use their hands and arms with brutal force. According to more new research in 2018, they were capable of fine-tuned movements. In this study, scientists analyzed marks left on the bones from muscle attachments, concluding that Neanderthals’ manual dexterity helped them use tools for hunting.
Genetic Traits Of Woolly Mammoths
neanderthal dna ancestry
A 2019 study found that Neanderthals and woolly mammoths shared some molecular signs of adaptation to cold environments. Both mammals evolved from African ancestors before adapting to cold climates of ice-age Eurasia. Then, both species also became extinct around the same time.
The study’s author explains how these genetic parallels seem to be evidence of convergent evolution since both Neanderthals and woolly mammoths faced similar conditions and underwent similar adaptations. The study involved three case studies that yielded the same results. The researchers found the same gene variants and alleles – all associated with cold-climate adaptation – in both the Neanderthal and woolly mammoth genomes. These included genes involved with thermogenesis (production of body heat), keratin protein activity, and pigmentation of skin and hair.
Study co-author and Tel Aviv University researcher, Meidad Kislev, said in a statement:
“We believe these types of connections can be valuable for future evolutionary research. They’re especially interesting when they involve other large-brained mammals, with long life spans, complex social behavior and their interactions in shared habitats with early humans.”
Co-author Ran Barkai, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, added:
“They say you are what you eat. This was especially true of Neanderthals; they ate mammoths but were apparently also genetically similar to mammoths.”
Humans Breeding With Neanderthals
Modern humans mated with Neanderthals as far back as 100,000 years ago. This interbreeding occurred when modern humans encountered Neanderthals as they started moving out of Africa.
Science magazine reported:
After early modern humans emerged in Africa about 200,000 years ago, some eventually left the continent and mixed with Neanderthals in the Middle East or the Arabian Peninsula, where fossils and stone tools of both groups date back to about 120,000 to 125,000 years. This group of modern humans went extinct, but their DNA persisted in the Neanderthals that headed east to eventually settle in Siberia. Meanwhile, another group of modern humans left Africa much later and interbred 50,000 to 60,000 years ago with Neanderthals that had headed south from Europe to the Middle East. In this later migration, Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of living Europeans and Asians, who then spread throughout Eurasia. Some of this group of modern humans also encountered Denisovans, picking up the DNA that persists today in Melanesians and some Asians.
The researchers are still not sure how exactly the encounters happened; whether they had peaceful meetings or raids in which one group stole the females of another group. Chris Stringer, a professor and research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, told the BBC:
“Eventually, geneticists should be able to show if the transfer of DNA in either direction was mainly via males, females, or about equal in proportion, but it will need a lot more data before that becomes possible.”
Another interesting find regarding interbreeding of humans and Neanderthals was that it caused the Neanderthal “extinction”. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany analyzed the DNA of Neanderthals, early humans, and modern humans. They discovered that the Neanderthals’ genes dissipated over time as interbreeding increased until eventually they were wiped out.
Svante Paabo, professor of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, told The Times:
“It means they were incorporated, which is why we see so many of their genes living on in modern Europeans. If we look at a few thousand genomes we can pick out 15,000 Neanderthal genes — so at least half their genome is walking around in people today,”
Those genes that helped the humans leaving Africa to survive to modern times were good for that period in which they were needed. However, those same genes are unnecessary now and are causing many modern-day genetic illnesses as a result. Pieces of DNA in modern humans that trace back to Neanderthals were analyzed in a recent study. They found that the genetic inheritance includes a higher risk of blood clots and strokes, depression, skin lesions, a propensity for nicotine addiction and even malnutrition due to imbalanced thiamine.
LiveScience reported in 2016:
“Ultimately, the researchers found that Neanderthal genetic variants were significantly linked to increased risk of 12 traits, including heart attack and artery thickening.”
In prehistoric times, these traits were related to adaptations. They were beneficial back when our bodies were regulated by circadian rhythms, a very different diet and the need for boosted immune systems. Now, these traits are problematic.
Science magazine said:
“But however beneficial in the Pleistocene and to people living in poor conditions today, even immune-boosting genes may have deleterious effects in the United States and Europe, where people face fewer parasites: [computational biologist Janet] Kelso found that the archaic receptor genes were strongly linked to allergies.”
Sick And Elderly Care
Neanderthals cared for those within their family group to the point that a member could live for (perhaps) many years after a major injury. For example, the bones of an elderly man who had had debilitating arthritis and no teeth were found (in 1908) in a burial pit at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. For him to be found in this condition meant that his family cared for him into his later years, perhaps even chewing his food for him. Other bodies were found as well at other sites with evidence that fellow members of a group of Neanderthals must have cared for individuals who suffered debilitating injuries. Neanderthal health care was “a compassionate and knowledgeable response to injury and illness,” according to a 2018 study.
Lead author and University of York researcher Penny Spikins says in a statement:
“Our findings suggest Neanderthals didn’t think in terms of whether others might repay their efforts; they just responded to their feelings about seeing their loved ones suffering. We argue that organized, knowledgeable and caring health care is not unique to our species but rather has a long evolutionary history.”
Burials, Grave Markers, And Symbolic Gestures
Around 20 grave sites in Western Europe were found to contain proof that Neanderthals sometimes buried their dead. Such a tradition had long been considered something only modern humans do.
Not only did they sometimes purposefully bury their dead, but they may also have left flowers and other grave markers with their deceased, all of this perhaps before contact with modern humans. No other primate and no other earlier human species practiced this tradition.
Scientific American reported:
From pollen found in one of the Shanidar graves, [Smithsonian anthropologist Ralph] Solecki hypothesized that flowers had been buried with the Neanderthal dead — until then, such burials had been associated only with Cro-Magnons, the earliest known H. sapiens in Europe. “Someone in the last Ice Age,” Solecki wrote, “must have ranged the mountainside in the mournful task of collecting flowers for the dead.” Furthermore, Solecki continued, “It seems logical to us today that pretty things like flowers should be placed with the cherished dead, but to find flowers in a Neanderthal burial that took place about 60,000 years ago is another matter.”
Leaving flowers with the dead is a symbolic gesture that falls in line with other behavior that reflects symbolic thinking by Neanderthals, including decorating themselves with pigment and jewelry of feathers and shells.
William Rendu, a paleoanthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and New York University told LiveScience:
“It is novel evidence that Neanderthals were able to develop, by themselves, some complex symbolic thought. The behavioral distance between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans seems to become even thinner.”
The earliest known cave art on Earth was made by Neanderthals. Their ability to think symbolically came through in graphic representations on the walls. According to a 2018 study, there are paintings in three Spanish caves that were created more than 64,000 years ago; that’s long before modern Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. All three caves contain red or black paintings of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, handprints, and engravings.
Lead author Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, said in a statement about the discovery:
“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.”
The new study’s dating methods involved using a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating, which capitalizes on tiny carbonate deposits that build up on cave paintings over time. These deposits contain traces of radioactive uranium and thorium, which reveal when the deposits formed and in doing so, give a minimum age for the art underneath.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that these Neanderthal painters were part of a much broader artistic culture. Study co-author, Paul Pettitt of Durham University, said:
“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident. We have examples in three caves 700 km apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.”